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The ‘Children of Nobody’: Street Kids in West Africa


A street child in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, April 2016. NABILA EL HADAD
A street child in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, April 2016. NABILA EL HADAD

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — Tasséré Ouedraogo, 33, appears to have spent his childhood comfortably, as reflected in the colorful tailor-made suit he wears as an adult. Yet, from age 11 to 16, he was a bakroman, or street child, in local slang.

Here in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa of around 18 million inhabitants, where elders care for and pay close attention to the youngest members of their community, there are still thousands of children eking out an existence here in the streets of the capital, far from home.

“They observe each other,” said Valérie Medori Touré, a sociologist in Ouagadougou, about the generational concern for children in this country. “They take care of each other and contribute at the same time to their education.”

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“The street is a space of socialization and conviviality,” Touré continued, and it is where people tend to eat — along roads, in front of their homes. Public spaces in a village and even in a city district are like “a small community,” where people get to know each other.

But children who actually live in the street, on their own, are perceived as “renegades,” as they do not belong to any community, Touré said, adding that “the child of everybody in the village becomes the child of nobody in the city.”

Tasséré Ouedraogo was only 11 when he left his village 30 miles from Ouagadougou by himself and moved here to make money.

A mother looking for her son in Ouagadougou. Many of the children are orphaned, abandoned or sent out to beg. NABILA EL HADAD
A mother looking for her son in Ouagadougou. Many of the children living in the streets have either run away from home or are orphaned, abandoned or sent out to beg. NABILA EL HADAD

“My father married four women,” he said, speaking in French, like the other people interviewed for this article. “I have 20 brothers and sisters. He was a public employee. But when he retired, he did not receive immediately his pension. When I saw all these young people of the village coming back from the city with all these things . . .  I wanted to be like them.”

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In a country with a high fertility rate, with the number of births exceeding five children for each woman, according to the World Bank, some children may end up having to look after their own needs from an early age with few social services to rescue or to help them in enduring ways.

More than 7,500 children live as bakroman in the dusty, hectic streets of Ouagadougou, having arrived there for different reasons: they are orphans, abandoned children, runaways or migrants. Most of the street children are boys.

But these figures are “insulting, as everyone knows that it’s much more,” said Ange Josué, the acting director of a project called Fight Against Violence Against Children in the government’s Ministry for Social Action and National Solidarity. The last national census was done in 2010, so the numbers are undoubtedly higher, Josué added.

The phenomenon of street children is not confined to Burkina Faso, of course. No one knows precisely how many children live or work in the streets globally.

“But with the fast urbanization of our world, these numbers tend to grow; and with them, inequity, exclusion and violence will increase too,” said Marta Santos Pais, the special representative of the United Nations secretary-general on violence against children. “Addressing the situation of these children is therefore a question of urgency and also a human rights imperative.”

“The true measure of a nation’s standing is assessed by how much it invests in children and how well it fulfills children’s human rights,” Santos Pais also said in an email. “Perceived as a curse, pictured as a danger, socially rejected, labelled as delinquents, diluted in the scenario and ignored in their individual identity and history, children living in the street are met with neglect, marginalization and contempt. In most cases, their life is associated with high levels of violence and abuse, and unfortunately also with weak, ill-resourced and fragmented efforts to protect their fundamental rights. This is a serious governance gap we need to urgently address!”

Street children with other people in a movie theatre built under a paillotte in Ouagadougou Burkina Faso
Most street children in Ouagadougou are boys; here, they and others relax in a makeshift movie theater built under a paillotte. NABILA EL HADAD

Around 80 state structures, nongovernment organizations and independent associations across Burkina Faso try with scarce resources to help disadvantaged children and those who live in the streets, according to Josué. These groups mainly try to get the children to reunite with their families, to provide them shelter and to send them to school or to offer basic skills-training opportunities.

Here in the capital, on a Saturday in April, children ran around in the courtyard or in the dormitories of the Kamzaka shelter (“kamzaka” means “the court of children” in Morée, a local dialect). Some of the 40 resident children had just finished cleaning their clothes. During the week, 80 percent of them attend carpentry or welding workshops. The others go to public or private school.

During the children’s stay at the shelter, the staff members there try to reintegrate the “residents” with their families, but “it takes time and it is sometimes a failure or impossible,” said Romaric Ilboudo, the chairman of Enfance en Peril, or Children in Peril, the association that founded the shelter.

Among the children living in Kamzaka, 13 are supported by private contributors to help them to reunite with their families. “They are children from the most underprivileged backgrounds,” Ilboudo explained. Thanks to the donors, each participating family receives a bag of rice, a bag of corn and spaghetti every quarter throughout the year. “But it’s not enough. Some of them [children] run away from their home a second time.”

Ilboudo said he worried about the kind of future the association could offer children like Moussa, 13, who has no father and was found living in the street after his mother sent him there to beg. To restore a relationship of mutual trust, “some of these children need psychological assistance to prepare them to reintegrate their family,” Ilboudo said, adding that “we do not have enough means to do so.”

The cost of care for each child at Kamzaka amounts to about $68 a year. In Ilboudo’s office, bags full of second-hand clothes from Europe, he said, will be distributed to children. Food in the shelter, basic health care, training and education fees as well as salaries are covered by the European Union (about $44,000 for this year) and a French association ($5,600 a year).

“When we ask the [Burkina Faso] government to help us, they answer they have no money,” Ilboudo said.

In the last few months, the fiscal cupboard of the Ministry of Social Action has gone almost empty. Burkina Faso held its first democratic election in late 2015 as it recovers politically and financially from the ouster of its former dictator, Blaise Compaoré, by popular revolt in October 2014, and as foreign aid returns. His wife, Chantal, was said to be active in charities for women and children in Burkina Faso before the couple fled to Ivory Coast.)

“Our partners granted us credit,” Josué, in the government, said. The national budget has not been approved, and  Josué’s ministry must merge with the Ministry of Women, so “we hope that the budget allocated” to the project will improve, he said, “but in Burkina, everything is a priority.”

Unicef, which has an office in the large UN compound in the capital’s city center, said through a press officer and a statement that a mechanism supervised by authorities to identify and monitor children living in the street would be important to clarify the situation, a position that Unicef has discussed with government officials and civil society, it said, and continues to advocate.

“The two key areas to address this are coordinating interventions for better response and prevention to avoid an escalation of the number of children dropping out from their family and their community,” said Barbara Jamar of Unicef’s Child Protection Section, in Burkina Faso.

A 2010 report on Burkina Faso by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, published before the country’s recent political upheaval, found an increasing number of children living on the streets and noted “their limited access to health, education and other social services.” It also noted that children living on the streets “are subjected to police brutality, sexual abuse and economic exploitation.”

A girl street child helps a blind man, Ouagadougou. NABILA EL HADAD
A street child helps a blind man in Ouagadougou, following him like a guardian all day long. Charities aim to reunite the children with their families, with little success. NABILA EL HADAD

Tasséré Ouedraogo was luckier than many other street children, when at age 16 a Doctors Without Borders (or Médecins sans Frontières) team spotted him, he said, and “asked me to work with them on a project to provide care to street children.”

Trained to become a first-aid assistant, Ouedraogo continued to sleep outside “to maintain contact with my second family” — his fellow street children. During his five years in the street and the years in and out of shelters, he realized the limits of charities’ ability to improve conditions for children like him.

The first priority should be to build a better life and provide suitable training to help the children find a way to make a living, Ouedraogo said. “Most of the children have experienced different care centers, but as there is no real monitoring, no future, they run away from a center to another one and finally return to the street.”

With other former street children, Ouedraogo began an association, or charity, called AJER-FS (in English, loosely, Association of Children Living in the Street Facing Their Fate). Until recently, it was supported by CISV, an Italian nongovernment organization “after they discovered bakroman,” Ouedraogo said, through a 2010 documentary by Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serio.

“But they [CISV] did not renew their support because of the crisis, they told me,” Ouedraogo said, referring to the European economic crisis that began in 2008 and still lingers. Now, CISV assists the association by collecting nearly $1,000 in donations through the Internet, Ouedraogo said.

The philosophy of AJER-FS is “helping children by leaving them independent on the street and giving them the choice to live on their own on the street,” Ouedraogo said. Twice a week, he and volunteers organize talks on daily-life topics to help open the minds of the children and build their confidence.

“Reintegrating the family is a long process,” Ouedraogo also said, referring to those efforts. Most children, however, do not provide details about their family as they do not want to return home. The child first needs to reintegrate gradually into society by trusting adults, Ouedraogo added.

For example, his association has set up a “community” approach through the center’s 45 dormitory sites spread across Ouagadougou, where the children sleep. What he calls a “dormitory” is actually a place occupied by street children, such as in the street, in a vacant building or in the city’s stadium.

“There is an average of 20 children per site,” he said. “In each site, one child is chosen by the others to act as a leader and represent them. The leader in turn interacts with a referral person from the district, the next-door shopkeeper or someone else, someone they can trust and rely on to maintain a link with the association in case of emergency.”

Few if any social services or local charities can address the full care that street children need in Burkina Faso, a West African nation recovering from political upheaval. NABILA EL HADAD
Few if any social services can fully address the care that street children need in Burkina Faso, a West African nation recovering from political turmoil. NABILA EL HADAD

In one “dormitory” this reporter visited, about 10 children had never heard of Ouedraogo or AJER-FS. While three of the children were killing time or satisfying their unfortunate drug addiction by sniffing glue in a plastic bag, others like Hamadou, 11, an ethnic Peul who has lived in the street for one year, were distancing themselves from the others.

“When my father died, my mother married another man,” Hamadou explained when we had some privacy. “So, they send me to live with my grandmother. Then she died. I lived with my aunt. But there were too many problems, so I left.”

The continuing disappointments that street children face is impossible to overlook. Isaac, 18, described himself as “a grandfrère,” or “big brother” — someone who cares for children. He said that many people come and say they work for an association and they take pictures of the street children. They say they will help them to gather money and promise to come back and help them.

“But nothing happened.”


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Nabila El Hadad is a freelance journalist and photographer who has reported for French, Swiss and other national and private radio, TV and documentary sites from the Middle East, North Africa, West Africa, Ukraine and France. In Burkina Faso, where she is currently based, she reported on the coup in September 2015 and the national elections in November 2015 for Jeune Afrique as a photographer. She also worked as a photographer for Agence France Presse (AFP) during the 2015 presidential campaign in Burkina Faso and covered the 2016 jihadist attack on Ouagadougou for French public radio and TV. Her photographs of the attack were published by AFP and by Reuters. She is currently working on a photo essay about women working in a granite quarry in Ouagadougou.

El Hadad studied international trade and journalism at the Institute of Political Studies of Aix-en-Provence in France.

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The ‘Children of Nobody’: Street Kids in West Africa
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2 years ago

Another sad African story written by a white man. What you fail to mention is what has caused this calamity! White supremacy, capitalism, and colonization! White men have destroyed lives and continue to do so!

2 years ago
Reply to  Sona

Wasn’t written by a white man.

Michael Easterly
Michael Easterly
6 years ago

It feels bad to see children suffer from poverty and in the time of achieving education they are working on the streets. For help such kids, NGO and charity are working for them so that they also live a good life as other children. I have read here that Ngo like mission humanitaire also works for helping children and the poor communities in Benin, West Africa.

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